WASHINGTON—On a spring day in 1911, fire erupted in a New York factory, killing 146 people, many of them young immigrant women trapped in a locked sweatshop. Outrage over their deaths crystallized the young progressive movement, produced long-stalled reforms and influenced young politicians who would later help craft the New Deal.
Today America faces a similar prospect.
Anger and sadness over the plight of the poor trapped by Hurricane Katrina are driving an intense look at what Americans want from their federal government. Politicians are angling to push their ideas. The federal checkbook is wide open. Change appears inevitable.
The result—a George W. Bush-style Ownership Society, a Lyndon Johnson-style Great Society or perhaps some blend of the two—could change American politics. The change could extend well beyond the next election and foster new ways of governing that would live on long after Bush and today's Congress leave office.
"This is one of those pivotal moments in our history," said Michael Franc, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, and once a top aide to former House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas.
"This could be the dawn of a great era of conservative governance. Or it could be the beginning of the crackup of the conservatism," Franc said.
President Bush clearly sees a historic opportunity. In his speech Thursday from New Orleans, he proposed using the recovery to showcase conservative principles of governing on a broader scale than has ever been tried before.
He would, for example, use taxpayer-financed school vouchers to allow those in the disaster zone to attend private schools. He would give federal land to some poor people for homes they would own. He would give the needy $5,000 accounts to use for job training or other job-related expenses.
He already has used his executive power to rescind wage rules and allow contractors who'll receive tens of billions of federal dollars to pay lower wages.
Taken together, his orders and proposals of recent days represent a dramatic shift toward what he calls an "Ownership Society" in which the government provides help but people get more choices—and more responsibility—for their own welfare.
Jack Kemp, a former Republican congressman and Cabinet secretary, said the hurricane offered a rare opportunity to enact a sweeping agenda.
"We have an enormous opportunity," he said in an essay last week, "to replace outmoded government programs and bureaucracies with public-private partnerships and new private institutions that are built upon the foundation of individual ownership, private property rights, personal responsibility and social justice that an ownership society brings."
The result, Kemp said, "could begin to transform America in the first decade of the 21st century."
Perhaps. But there also are pressures from the left.
One charge is that the Republican government turned a blind eye to protecting its most vulnerable citizens at home while focusing on war abroad.
Arguably more corrosive is the broader indictment that, under Republican rule, the government has grown ineffective—unable to stop the terrorist attacks of 2001, wrong in its assertion that Iraq threatened us with weapons of mass destruction, impotent to stop soaring gasoline prices even before the hurricane.
Democrats are pushing to expand the kind of government programs created in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s and Johnson's Great Society of the 1960s, as well as newer programs that President Clinton pushed in the 1990s.
"We call for a Marshall Plan for the Gulf states ... to build new housing, revive farmland, repair infrastructure, construct schools," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader, joined by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
For Katrina victims, Democrats want to expand Medicaid, provide more housing vouchers, expand medical coverage, award $2,500 grants to school districts for each evacuated student they admit and suspend or end a host of penalties for failing to repay student loans or other financial obligations.
"There are moments that crystallize ideas and movements," said John Podesta, the chief of staff in the Clinton White House and now president of the Center for American Progress, a research center.
"This is an important moment. The public is in a listening mood," he said. "There is an opportunity to really be heard, to say that the direction we've been on is the wrong one and there is an alternative. But we've got to think big and we've got to think in terms of serious reforms about the fundamental needs of the people."
Already there is bipartisan support in Congress to temporarily expand Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, in states where hurricane evacuees need care.
Federal spending is certain to soar. Bush and congressional leaders signal there will be no limit on recovery efforts. The price tag could top $200 billion.
When the recovery is finished, there's no doubt that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will look markedly different. It's also likely the federal government will look different.
Said Franc: "What direction it takes, whether it's toward another Great Society or a new Ownership Society, it's too early to tell."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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